Dr Sue Pember, director of policy and external relations at Holex, answers your questions on college governance, backed by her experience as principal of Canterbury College and in senior civil service posts in education and skills.

Question One: Exceptions to exceptional support

I keep hearing about failing colleges that merged in the area reviews and got large sums of money. Why is the government rewarding failure in this way?

Answer: This is a difficult question to answer, as when you put it like that it seems hard to justify. I agree that it does seem unfair but the students must always come first. It is not the learners’ fault that they have had to attend a poorly run establishment, and future learners must not be subjected to the same experience. So the government has made the decision to prioritise those areas and get provision of good quality in place, but doing that comes at a cost. I am hoping that once these areas are settled, we will return to a fair and more equitable distribution of support funds.

Question Two: Should our principal have three jobs?

I am a staff governor and recently I realised my principal seems to be doing three jobs. Is that normal?

Answer: This is not normal, but not unusual. There is a trend at the moment to grow empires. For example, a principal might run a college as their main role, be chief executive of a trading company where the college is the largest shareholder, and chief executive of a multi-academy trust. 

The college structure will probably have grown organically without the board recognising the complexity and extent of its growth. As a board, you might need to start thinking about whether there should be a group structure, and consider whether it is reasonable to ask one person do all three jobs.

Also, the board should look at accountability and what might happen if things go wrong. If one of the boards of these three entities is dissatisfied with the service and attention they are getting, who makes the changes?

There are also questions of remuneration and assessment of performance, and who pays whom?

There are many possible models but, the bottom line is that this needs to be transparent, well documented and be an effective use of public funds. 

Question Three: Cracking all these codes of practice

The minister’s letter to governors talked about the Charity Commission code, but we already have the code of good governance for English colleges and the UK’s main corporate code. Why do we need yet another code?

Answer: A college’s legal status is that of an exempt charity and therefore there are elements of charity law and behaviours that are relevant to a college board. 

This new code has a greater emphasis on openness and accountability than the previous version. However, the Charity Commission’s code has been drawn up to cover both large and small charities and is very generic.

When the code of good governance for English colleges was developed, the work did consider best practice in the commercial world and charities, and was tailored to represent the best in college practice, which is why it received BIS and ministerial endorsement. However, as it is now three years old, it is high time for a refresh in my opinion.